A quest for celebration of Texas slaves' freedom

With a mayor's refusal to join a parade, one more wrinkle and roar in the battle for a more official Juneteenth.

No mayor rides in every town parade. But when Barry Hayden, the unpaid chief executive of rural Hempstead, Texas, declined to roll along in this year's Juneteenth parade, his decision sparked a protest on his front lawn - and turned up the heat on simmering racial tensions over the dismal upkeep of the town's African-American cemeteries.

Beyond the intricacies of small-town race relations, though, the protest underscored the fervor surrounding a holiday many Americans aren't even aware of.

The events of June 19, 1865, may not have made their way into every US history textbook, but they've spawned a growing movement for a National Emancipation Day. Already, a dozen states, from Connecticut to California, officially celebrate Juneteenth - shorthand for June 19 - and activists are pushing for a federal holiday, too. The road, of course, is steep: When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became a federal holiday in 1986 - the first such designation since Thanksgiving was declared in 1941 - it was with congressional reluctance, regional resentment, and Republican Sen. Jesse Helms's threat of a filibuster. Among opponents' objections: How to navigate the thorny path of choosing holiday-worthy heroes?

But the obstacles of federal recognition haven't dampened the enthusiasm of activists pushing for a holiday that some see as a crucial postscript to July 4.

What happens to a dispatch deferred?

On June 19, 138 years ago, African-Americans in Texas learned of their freedom - nearly 2-1/2 years after slavery had officially ended with President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. So thrilled were those blacks who listened to Union Gen. Gordon Granger deliver the news after landing in Galveston and placing the city under martial law, that they raced into the streets, leaping and singing.

On that day, the story goes, they proclaimed they would never forget the date they were freed. And as Texans have migrated across the country over the last century, they've taken that vow along. While some have ribbed Texans for celebrating a dispatch so long deferred, the day's significance here is clear.

"To some extent, it is a sad day, like when an anticipated letter is lost. But the contents of that letter are not devalued by the delay in delivery," says Clifton Taulbert, an African-American author based in Tulsa. And the delay, he insists, should not diminish the hoopla. "We look at Juneteenth as: Our most distant cousin has finally gotten the letter - and now we can all celebrate together."

Juneteenth celebrations haven't evolved much in 138 years. Most still include free barbecue and red soda, music, and parades. But some national groups are trying to include an educational component, so that younger generations won't forget the history of the date.

"The holiday is going to come; it needs to come. But what is more important is the re-education of our people," says Lula Briggs Galloway, president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage in Saginaw, Mich.

She doesn't believe that African-Americans need permission to celebrate something that's already theirs. Just take the day off, she suggests - regardless of whether your state recognizes Juneteenth or not.

That's what many blacks in Texas did before Juneteenth was official, says Houston historian Patricia Smith Prather. "When I was growing up, it was an accepted fact that nobody black went to work on Juneteenth. Maids and butlers, we all stayed home," she says. "It was a day of jubilee, a day of prayer and singing."

Interest waxes, wanes

But enthusiasm for the celebrations began to wane in the 1960s with the birth of the civil rights movement and its focus on integration and unity - until the 1970s, when an emphasis on black history and cultural heritage swung the pendulum back.

Finally, in 1979, Texas became the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth, and other states followed suit on the momentum of precedent and popular demand. In 1997, the US Congress passed a resolution designating June 19 as Juneteenth Independence Day. A presidential proclamation would make it a national holiday - something no president has been willing to do.

Activists were hoping that President Bush would be sympathetic to the idea, having presided over the holiday many times as governor of Texas. So far, though, the thousands of petitions have fallen on deaf ears.

"He is asking the country to come together to fight terrorism, but he doesn't acknowledge the history of terrorism in America," says Ronald Myers, founder of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which is pushing for the holiday.

Celebration tempered by indignation

Some African-Americans, however, are not as keen on the date - saying it marks a miscarriage of justice and an illegitimate end to slavery. Two better dates, they suggest, would be January 1, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, and December 6, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1865.

Hempstead, however, will continue celebrating June 19 - as it has since 1983. While this year's Juneteenth parade will go on without the mayor, who refuses to ride in any parade, some residents say it won't dampen their spirits.

"There are a lot of people in this community that are doing real good," says Leroy Singleton, the first black mayor of Hempstead and one of the town's original Juneteenth founders. "And we always look forward to the 19th."

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